The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

A Product of Its Environment

Posted on | August 18, 2010 | Written by Francesco Vigorito | 2 Comments

Pinot fruit from Chehalem, WA. Notice the tightly packed bunch, this prevents air circulation around the berries which can cause mold and rot.

Pinot Noir is a difficult grape to grow perfectly. It’s vulnerable to extreme weathers, possesses thin skin that  makes the berries susceptible to all sorts of diseases and often experiences problems in the cellar during fermentation—and these are just a few of Pinot’s issues.

These problematic situations exist no matter where  Pinot is grown, be it Burgundy, Australia, New Zealand or California. The main difference in Pinot is not the difficulty; it’s the terroir. Grapes are products of their environment, just as we all are. The soil, sun, rain, air  and exposure all help to determine a grape’s character, as does the grape grower. When one or more of these factors change, the product is different; hence, you have differences in styles between countries, regions, and producer.

Two specific models of how environment affects Pinot Noir are the terroirs of Burgundy and Australia.

The risk of growing Pinot in Burgundy is very high compared to other places, but the reward is commensurate to the risk. The climate is continental and marked by cold winters, which can damage or even kill young vines.  Burgundy  is so far north that the summer is just barely long enough to bring grapes to full ripeness, and there is constantly a threat of hail and under-ripe fruit. Some years have too much rain and too much cold, which can hurt production and quality. However, the long and cool growing season also allow the berries to produce all of those complexities and nuances that we love. Pinot does not live an easy life, but this why some say the best wines in world come from Burgundy.

Here's a look at a vineyard in Burgundy. The trees in the background are important in blocking strong and cold winds that can damge thw vines. You can also get a good look at the soil in this one.

The soil is extremely varied in Burgundy. Limestone, marl, sand and gravel coexist throughout the region and within single vineyards. Pinot tends to be planted on soils richer in marl, while Chardonnay is planted on limestone. These soils provide drainage and warmth, helping the grapes to ripen. The bottom line is that these conditions allow the Pinot Noir grape to flourish and produce their best wines. Aromatically complex and elegant, Burgundy’s Pinot Noir are an enchanting light ruby red, and the flavors are earth-driven, rather than fruit-forward. The wine delicately caresses your mouth with a focused intensity backed by a symphony of nuances and pure elegance.

Contrary to Burgundy’s chilliness, Australia is way too hot in most places. Most Pinots from Australia feel  over-extracted, almost like fruit bombs, due to the heat that makes sugar levels skyrocket and acids take the back seat. The grapes are picked in an over-ripe state resulting in jammy fruitiness with a high alcohol content that detracts from the elegant nature of the grape. However, Yarra Valley and Geelong in South Victoria  have particularly cool climates, and these areas produce the better Pinots. They’re worth looking for.

Perhaps more than any other grape, producer and vintage are vitally important when choosing a Pinot. When buying, look for producers who have a known reputation for producing quality grapes, then look for the vintage. Rare is the grape that has inspired a movie—and Sideways‘ Miles Raymond might have put it best when he said, “Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.”


2 Responses to “A Product of Its Environment”

  1. Simone Tyson
    August 18th, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

    re ” However, Yarra Valley and Geelong in South Australia have particularly cool climates, and these areas produce the better Pinots”

    Just to let you know – The Yarra Valley and Geelong are located in Victoria, Australia and not in South Australia.

  2. Francesco Vigorito
    August 20th, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    Thank you for pointing that out, you are absolutely right!

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